What's your field and specialisation?
My background is structural geology and tectonics. I have worked in petroleum exploration and my current field is CCS. At heart I am an explorer, wanting to know what's over the horizon and how things work.
“If you drill here, what are you going to find?”
“How does this work as a system?”
“How do I put ranges on what I'm likely to find?”
“What is the performance likely to be using minimal data?”
I bring the eyes of an explorer to CCS thinking.
Tell us a bit about your teaching journey.
I started teaching geology as a grad student 30 years ago . . . and, at first, I was terrible at it! But I wanted to be good, so I watched good teachers and I read about it, studied it and was fortunate to work with some really excellent instructional designers. I went on to teach courses for BP, the University of Arizona, members of the public, and I've continued teaching different audiences and subjects at the University of Texas.
What is your favourite memory from fieldwork or field training?
You know, I'm hard pressed to identify a particular favourite, but I've got a collage of wonderful memories of being high in the mountains, gazing out over a valley of beautifully structured geology, just pinching myself that I actually get paid to do this stuff! And, you know, I’ve described this job sometimes as getting paid to go play in the mountains and solve puzzles. And those are the days when there is no better job in the world.
Tell us about your upcoming course with GeoLogica – what is it about and who is it for?
The course is about the subsurface aspects of CCS, the geologic components of CO2 storage, and it's effectively trying to adapt petroleum expertise for CCS. It's aimed at geologists, geophysicists and engineers. It's part geology, part modelling, part surface monitoring.
My understanding initially, coming from petroleum geology, was that CO2 seems fairly simple: it’s a buoyant fluid and we’re talking about subsurface fluid flow with reservoir seals and traps. How different can it be? And the answer is actually really different. First, you're injecting at industrial rates, so pressure build-up is a major constraint. Second, the economics are very different. It's a low-margin business, so you're far more constrained than when dealing with petroleum. And third, you don't want it back. The goal is sequestration, which opens up a whole new series of plays and concepts that work, and also risks. So all together, these components ripple through the entire system and make you rethink all your ideas of what ‘good’ looks like.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that most people don't know?
Outside of geology I am a lifelong endurance athlete, woodworker, dad and caffeine addict by necessity!
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing your sector at the moment as a whole?
Oh, that’s a good question. You know, as much fun as I have working on the subsurface, as much room as there still is to optimise subsurface geology, and as much of a need as there is for geoscience, the big barriers to CCS are above ground. In different parts of the world, it varies a little bit, but it's a combination of economics, permitting and public acceptance.
In the US, the economics have radically shifted over the last couple of years so that is no longer the big barrier – now, it's public acceptance and permitting. These things will get worked out eventually but it's early days and a new industry. The public is unfamiliar with it and are – fairly enough – distrustful. Permit and regulators are new to this game and are, again, proceeding with appropriate caution. But those are the big barriers in the US. In other parts of the world, economic incentives vary dramatically and so, in those countries, economics is the primary barrier. But if you find a way to pay for it, then the other things become much more significant.
I grew up in New England, one of the oldest parts of the US, where you commonly see farmhouses that are a couple of hundred years old. Behind every one of those farmhouses, like the one where I grew up, there would be a pile of rusting cans and bottles, which harks back to an age when municipal trash collection was unheard of. And it actually wasn't very long ago – say 50–60 years. But nowadays, municipal rubbish collection is almost taken for granted. And that was, in some ways, the first step in a journey toward pollution control. It continued with cleaning up the general practice of dumping industrial waste into the nearest waterway. In the US, the Queen Water Act of 1974 started the era of underground injection of hazardous waste, and that has continued, right? We've cleaned up sulphur dioxide emissions and chlorofluorocarbons – the sources of acid rain and ozone degradation. In some ways, CCS is just the next step in this journey, of realizing the impact of widespread dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. And, you know, just like those other things, there is a learning curve and a public acceptance curve and a remuneration curve that all has to come together before it works at scale – this takes time. We're low on that curve in CCS but you can see the day coming when it's simply a routine part of doing business.
What would be your advice to geoscientists who are starting their careers?
I gave this one some thought and I would say, “Learn to think in terms of systems but learn to talk in terms of stories.”
Geology is governed by a fairly simple set of processes. There are lots of processes at work and they can combine in complex ways. So, by stepping back and thinking in terms of systems, you'll be a much stronger interpreter. Think “How does the system work here?”, but also think about how you link the observations you make to an outcome via reasonable geological processes. So, it's thinking about systems, linking the observations with a story that incorporates reasonable geologic processes, and that is a powerful QC on interpretation.
With regards to talking in terms of stories – scientists think in terms of facts, but people communicate in terms of stories. Those who talk in terms of pure facts tend to lose their audience. So, learning to tell stories is a really powerful way to connect with an audience and communicate research in a way that lands. It's critical: brilliant research routinely falls flat because it simply wasn't intelligible to the audience or didn't connect with them.
Give us your best/worst geology joke?
Q: Why was the sandstone so cheap?
A: It was on shale!
That is truly awful.
Well, when you start telling geology jokes, you really know you've hit rock bottom.
Geologic Carbon Storage for Geoscientists and Engineers by Alex Bump, Seyyed Hosseini and Katherine Romanak will be running from 25-29 September 2023.